Political Unionism – Judge not lest ye be judged

There are a host of lessons to be learned from the public disorder that plagues our streets in the aftermath of the Belfast City Council decision to fly the Union flag only on designated days. Prominent among these must surely be the lesson for political unionism that if you’re going to whip people into a frenzy over an issue, encourage them make their feelings known, focus their anger on particular groups or individuals, then you had better be able to control them or be prepared for the backlash when you can’t.

The DUP, aided and abetted by the smaller UUP grouping in Belfast, spent the weeks leading up to the flags vote issuing press releases and posting in excess of 30,000 leaflets condemning the Alliance party for their stance on designated days. They encouraged people to let the Alliance party know how they feel. Elected representatives encouraged their community:

“If you want to blame someone for the City Hall vote, blame Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein”

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It is therefore unsurprising that when the vote didn’t go their way, as everyone knew it wouldn’t, those people who had their emotions roused, who had been told in no uncertain terms who was at fault, who had been convinced that their identity was being eroded, snapped. It’s important to stress that we’re talking about a minority here in the context of much larger numbers of protestors. But numbers will be cold comfort to the BCC security staff and police officers who were injured on Monday night. Or to the Alliance party who had their office in Carrickfergus gutted and burned. Or to Catherine and Michael Bowers who had their house paint-bombed as their 17 month old daughter lay sleeping in the next room.

alliance office

Alliance party office in Carrickfergus after an attack by a loyalist mob (Photo: Stephen Barnes)

The home of Alliance councillors Michael and Catherine Bower after a paint bomb attack

The home of Alliance councillors Michael and Catherine Bower after a paint bomb attack

What is needed now is leadership from political unionism. Leaders need to make clear to their communities that violence is unacceptable. That the thuggery and intimidation we’ve seen on our streets is not the way to achieve political change. And that suppressing the voice of others is not the way to make your own heard. And in fairness, we are beginning to see some of that leadership. I don’t always give credit to Peter Weir but he has been among the first to condemn this spate of violence. And in the last few hours Peter Robinson has called for all street protests about the flag to be suspended.

Some of the big voices of unionism remain conspicuously silent however. Especially the oft-heard voice of Nelson McCausland. Nelson has no difficulty condemning violence or criminality- as long as it comes from the nationalist community. In the 48 hours after riots in Ardoyne this summer, Nelson had written 5 blog posts about it. In the 2 weeks following, that number rose to 14 posts about the situation. These ranged from condemning individuals, commenting on LIVE court cases and criticising the media. However, in the wake of breaches of parades commission determinations (and thus the law) by bands in north Belfast this summer, Nelson found it very difficult to condemn anyone. He refused to comment on ongoing police investigations and court cases because it would be “inappropriate” (yet it was perfectly appropriate only 1 month earlier). In the aftermath of subsequent riots, Nelson didn’t write 1 solitary blog condemning the violence or even commenting on it. He did however find time to write about the SDLP motion of no confidence in him for his failure to condemn the violence. We’re now approaching 72 hours since the unacceptable scenes outside City Hall. Nelson again hasn’t blogged about the violence. He has, however, written a post about the Community relations council and their decision to support the designated days policy. Clearly the press releases of a QUANGO are much more important to Nelson than an attack on “the main municipal building in the capital city of Northern Ireland”, to use his own phraseology.

It is this double standard which does unionism an injustice. The willingness of some of its political representatives to point the finger of blame at nationalists for unacceptable violence but remain quiet when their own community perpetrates the same actions undermines the good community relations work of their colleagues. This passive acceptance of violence by a small number of unionists lends legitimacy to it as a vector for social change. Until we reach a stage where our politicians are able to respond to flagrant disregards for the rule of law in an equal fashion, regardless of community background, we will continue to fall into the pitfalls of the past.

As Nelson often quotes Bible passages in his own posts, it’s appropriate that this ends in a similar vein:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Matthew 7: 1-3

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#PrayForJoby

It’s now been over 12 days since Joseph Murphy, known to his friends and family as Joby, tragically fell into the river Lagan after a night out with friends.  He had been at the Snow Patrol concert in the Odyssey with his girlfriend Karen and a few others before heading to local nightclub “Beach” in the pavillion. After a few too many drinks, Joby tried to make his way home alone but in a moment of madness climbed the rail on the bridge beside the Lagan and tragically fell in.  A security guard who tried to coax him down said that Joby swam to a nearby boat but was unable to make it inside.  The bridge had no life belts on it and the guard had to run over 100m to get the nearest preserver, by which time it was too late to do anything.

Police divers have been searching for the body of the young man since the accident and for a time used specialised sonar equipment from England. It is believed they will continue searching in the coming days.  The Murphy family have maintained a constant vigil at the spot where their son and brother fell.

Any such case where a young person loses their life is an utter tragedy. The fact that Joby has dedicated much of his young life to the service of others and improving life for those in his community without a voice makes it all the more difficult to take in.  I had the supreme privilege of knowing Joby as members of the Belfast City Council youth forum and later the Northern Ireland youth forum. I’ve never met anyone as committed to bringing positive change to the lives of young people in any way he could, be it as a peer mentor, leading projects on mental health and suicide awareness, challenging elected officials or just having a conversation with someone isolated from the group.  His ability to connect with people, young and old, from any walk of life was something which I couldn’t help admiring.  A criticism often levelled at people who join youth councils and forums is that they are “elitist” or “CV builders”, I’ve come across more than a few examples of both, but Joby couldn’t be more different.  His only motivation was the betterment of his community and the cause of young people.

I first met him during a residential in Castlewellan where the accommodation was a (very leaky) teepee. That first encounter went on to typify how I saw him deal with things. Unconventional. He wanted to talk to people, get to know them, let them get to know him.  Too much youth & community work is spent writing up reports and analysing opinion.  Joby wanted to help people, no more and no less. The memories I have of him cooking a fish on a spade, terrorising friends in the early hours of the morning on residential, and just being a considerate person always looking to involve the most marginalised person will stay with me for the rest of my life.

It’s sad but not surprising that, even in death Joby is challenging society.  His father, Joe, has blamed the availability of very low cost alcohol as a contributing factor in his son’s death. The nightclub Joby had been drinking at that night is well reputed for having £1 shot offers amongst other promotions which encourage their young target market to spend a relatively low amount of money and still get drunk.  The club has responded by saying that it operates a “drink responsibly” policy and tries to ensure patrons get a taxi home where possible.  Clearly this isn’t good enough, these businesses thrive off getting young people drunk. The less they can charge for the alcohol, the more customers they’ll get. This ignores the fact that the less they can charge for the alcohol, the drunker the customer will get.  By their very nature they encourage irresponsible attitudes towards alcohol despite the laudable initiatives they have put in place.  What we need now is a mature debate on alcohol licensing and pricing. One that doesn’t shirk away from consequences like Joby’s death but acknowledges that it is a massive problem.

When Joby fell to his death a family lost a son & brother, I and many others lost a friend and we all lost a great champion for the rights of those who have no voice. His short life wont be forgotten and I hope his legacy makes a difference.

The Murphy family will be holding a candlelight vigil at the bridge this Friday 10th February at 7pm for those who want to attend in memory of Joby.  They would like to thank all of those who have sent messages of support and prayer for their son.

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The good, the bad and the ugly

As Northern Ireland enters a new phase in it’s life as a statelet it’s good to take stock of where we are.  This May the assembly and devolved institutions will celebrate their 5th full year of unsuspended operation since 2007.  But more importantly than that, never since the Good Friday agreement have the institutions looked so stable.  You can say what you want about the carve-up on the hill or it’s fall into stagnancy but the fact remains that the executive is meeting consistently, the assembly chamber is constantly debating and we’re now living without the fear of governmental collapse.

However, we’re now moving into a period where the relations between the main parties and between communities on either side of the traditional divide will be tested.  It’s often said that the DUP and Sinn Fein only pay lip service to the notion of a shared future and that they’re interested in maintaining the sectarian divide to shore up their core vote.  Well, now our two major parties have the opportunity to dispel that idea and prove that they are committed to moving Northern Ireland forward (I fear I may owe Peter Robinson some sort of royalty after that).  It has taken us over a decade to work together in government without running away when things get tough.  The approaching decade of centenaries will challenge the Stormont accord and the willingness of the parties to embrace the culture of Northern Ireland in all of it’s facets.  We can only hope that today is not an example of how our politicians plan on handling the upcoming events.

If you’ve picked up a newspaper, logged onto the internet or watched the news today you’ll be more than aware that today marks the Queen’s diamond Jubilee.  It marks the beginning of a range of events over the coming year to celebrate the monarch’s 60th year on the throne.  It should come as no surprise that many in NI want to be a part of those celebrations and feel a deep sense of pride in the reign of Elizabeth II.  All those who identify with the Queen have every right to be proud and want to celebrate such an event, to the best of my knowledge only one other monarch achieved such longevity. With this in mind, the motion in the assembly chamber today congratulating the monarch on her tenure was expected by many. And I’ll confess, it was pleasing to see the good wishes from both sides of the house from Peter Robinson and Tom Elliot to Alasdair McDonnell and his dignified recognition of the depth of feeling:

I wish to acknowledge and respect the achievement of the Queen, and acknowledge and respect all of those who value her monarchy in this house and across the country.

This was the good side of our politics shining through, the willingness of those who wouldn’t count themselves as royalists realising that the role of the Queen means a great deal to many people.

And then there was the bad side.  I must confess I was somewhat surprised when I heard that the Sinn Fein benches had remained mute on the subject. The reason for my surprise was that Martin McGuinness had clearly said he was willing to meet with the Queen after her visit to Ireland if he was elected president. He also said that “The past is a terrible place” and “This is about new beginnings, I’ve been at the heart of new beginnings for a long time… this is a real opportunity for a new beginning for the people of Ireland” about meeting the Queen. So, what’s changed from then to now? Apart from his unsuccessful presidential election campaign that is?  Is it possible that it was all just a political gimmick to get him elected? There’s something strange about a senior member of a political party professing a desire to create “a new beginning” in relations with a head of state and then his party refusing to utter a peep about that head of state during the time of celebration of her tenure.  It’s time we demanded more of our politicians, more than empty promises of a shared future, more than tentative commitments to embracing culture.  I was brought up with the maxim “It’s nice to be nice”, something the political elite should think about taking on board.

And then there’s the ugly side of our society.  News began filtering through this afternoon that Ian Paisley has been admitted to hospital after experiencing heart problems. Whatever your political opinion, Ian Paisley is an 85 year old man with a wife and children.  There is nothing to be gained in bearing the man malice. Wishing death on him is utterly reprehensible and I suspect those involved in tweeting messages like the ones below would have something to say if they were about their father or grandfather.

All those involved with the NI Daily wish Mr Paisley a full recovery.

While we’ve come a long way since the early days of the peace process, it seems that some our politicians and the rest of us still have some growing up to do. This next decade will be a test, I sincerely hope it’s one that we’re up to.

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Team GB, the BOA and brinkmanship

Today saw the announcement of a new Great Britain football team for the 2012 Olympic games. The team was to be an amalgamation of players from the home nations. However it seems that such an agreement was not reached at all, the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish FA’s have refuted the claim that a consensus was reached. They even made a joint statement reiterating their “Collective opposition to team GB participating at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.” In the statement released by the British Olympic association they said “Consistent with requirements set out in the Olympic Charter, the selection criteria will be entirely non-discriminatory, as players from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and other territories which fall under the BOA’s remit, who meet the approved competitive standard will be eligible for consideration and selection. The FA has consulted with its partner associations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in developing the player-selection criteria and timeline.” National FAs claim this to be untrue.

So, have BOA big wigs gone mad? It seems that they are trying to force the issue- with only a year to go until the Olympic games there is lot of preparation still to be done such as pick players, select the coaching staff as well as the copious amounts of organisation that is involved with an Olympic team. The BOA want as many medals as possible, this is fuelling speculation that the decision is simply to top up the numbers table at the end of the games. This debacle will only cause more friction between the national associations and the English FA; piling more criticism on the BOA especially after the ticket allocation controversy. In the long run it’s likely that we’ll see a GB football team, however the way in which the association has gone about bringing the issue to the fore is nothing short of brinkmanship.

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Life at Windsor

 Over the last few months the battle between the IFA and the FAI over player eligibility has heated up.  The IFA feeling aggrieved that players who they have trained over the years through their excellent youth training programme have decided to switch associations.  They aren’t annoyed so much by the fact that players who have parents or Grandparents who were born in the Republic of Ireland may want to play for the Republic, rather it’s the players who aren’t eligible under FIFA rules but use the Good Friday agreement as a back door into playing for the Republic.

I asked Geoff Wilson who is Head of Communications and Marketing for the IFA exactly what their view on the situation was.

I then asked him about another agreement between the IFA and FAI, Geoff said that they believe the 1951 agreement is still in place and that the FAI should be bound by it.

The Carling Nations Cup was also a talking point in our interview, my view was that it wasn’t great and it’s future was a bleak one.  However the IFA are very positive over the future of the Cup and maintain that small changes could be made to improve the overall experience for fans.

 We discussed the future of the Irish Premier League which seems to be on the up at the moment.  Increased interest from Sky Sports and sponsors such as Carling etc has given the league a much needed cash flow injection and invaluable PR.

A new national stadium was floated about in the press by the Stormont executive but wrangling over where it would be was causing delay.  Many within the football community were unwilling to move away from Windsor Park so a refurbishment was the most acceptable option; according to Mr Wilson, this was the same with Ulster Rugby and the GAA.

I asked Geoff about the IFA’s views on the recent FIFA corruption scandals, he said “Corruption had no place in football,” and that FIFA were going through a “media storm”.  While the English and Scottish FAs have released statements today calling for a postponement of the FIFA presidential elections the IFA seem to be a little Coy and waiting to see what happens before passing comment

On behalf of the NI Daily I would like to thank the IFA and especially Geoff for giving us time for an interview.

The full interview is available on request.

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